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NBA Playoffs 2019: Masai Ujiri’s bold moves, starting with the Kawhi Leonard gamble, forever changed Raptors history

TORONTO — On July 18, 2018, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri shocked the NBA when he pulled the trigger on one of the gutsiest trades in recent memory.

Ujiri took franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan — a four-time All-Star who pledged his loyalty to the NBA’s only Canadian franchise, famously saying, “I am Toronto” — and sent him to San Antonio for the disgruntled and injured Spurs star Kawhi Leonard.

Specifically, the player Ujiri was getting was a former Finals MVP coming off a bizarre breakup with one of the NBA’s best-run franchises after a season of miscommunication and mystery surrounding his injured quad. Ujiri did not know which Kawhi Leonard he was getting: Was he getting the Kawhi Leonard many thought to be an MVP candidate before his injury? Or was he getting a drastically reduced Kawhi? The one guarantee he did have was that whatever player he was getting, he would get him for one year and then all bets were off, because Kawhi is due to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019 and it had been reported again and again that he wanted to return to his childhood home in Southern California.

This was the definition of an NBA executive going for it. Remember the Tribe Called Quest song, “Midnight,” which features the lyric, “Scared money don’t make none?” Oklahoma City Thunder executive vice president Sam Presti quoted that line when he spoke about the risk the Thunder took in trading for one season of Paul George. That was the model that Ujiri hoped to emulate: Trade for one year of a superstar, treat him like royalty, win at a high level, and convince him to stay.

Ten months after Ujiri pushed all his chips to the center of the table, Saturday night was turning into a Sunday morning in Toronto, and the streets of the city were going wild. The Raptors had just dispatched the team with the likely MVP and the league’s best regular season record, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, in six games of the Eastern Conference finals to take the franchise to its first NBA Finals appearance in a quarter-century of existence. Cars honked their horns. Fans screamed; two of them stood out of a sunroof of a car that was doing donuts on Bay Street right beside Scotiabank Arena. Fred VanVleet could hardly drive his car through a throng of Raptors diehards who were shouting their postgame appreciation.

Ujiri wasn’t operating with scared money when he made the Kawhi trade 10 months ago. It took the biggest of gambles by Ujiri, plus several other bold and risky moves, to flip the script on a long-suffering franchise whose history is filled with almost-theres and not-quites.

Before he had traded for Kawhi, Ujiri fired head coach Dwane Casey (after Casey had won a franchise-record 59 games and been named Coach of the Year) and installed first-time head coach Nick Nurse (who had been coaching the Rio Grande Valley Vipers just a few years before). At the trade deadline, Ujiri sacrificed the team’s depth to get an integral piece for a playoff run, trading Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles for Marc Gasol, with the theory that the veteran big man’s high-IQ, two-way game could help the Raptors get past Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs.

Ujiri went for it.

He knew going for it could have failed. Kawhi could be a lesser player than hoped-for; even if he was still MVP-level Kawhi, he could still leave after a year, and the Raptors would have to launch a rebuild.

Ujiri went for it anyway.

And in going for it, he exorcised a quarter-century of demons from a long-suffering, always-loyal fan base, one of the NBA’s best.

“It’s a hell of a story, man,” VanVleet said after the Raptors’ 100-94 win in which they came back from a 15-point deficit with two minutes left in the third quarter. “What this franchise has been through from its inception, what this city has been through in terms of its basketball growth — it’s a heck of a story to be going to the Finals, to have a chance to win it all.”

The Raptors fan base has come to expect the worst, because, well, that’s how a fan base reacts when LeBron ruins your playoff dreams every … single … year. But with the even-keeled Kawhi as their new leader, this Raptors team became something different. They were a team that wasn’t obsessed with playoff seeding and instead was obsessed with building to a crescendo for the playoffs. In March Kawhi referred to the 82 regular season games as “just practices” (“You knew we were working for April, May and June,” Kyle Lowry said after Game 6. “Now we’re starting June.”). This Raptors team became a fourth-quarter team, a team that instead of having its fan base worried about what was about to go wrong, now fully expects things to go right. That’s what happens when a ball bounces four times off the rim as the buzzer sounds in a Game 7 and it ends up going through the net.

“Believing in the things you need to do — never being too high, never being too low,” Gasol said.

When Lowry thieved the ball from Khris Middleton with just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter on Saturday night and fed Kawhi for a monster dunk over Giannis to put the Raptors up eight points, that was the moment when it all felt real. Through elite defense, through a transcendent superstar who saves his best basketball for when it matters most, the Raptors were really going to do this. When the Raptors held on and the buzzer sounded, the arena lost its damn mind.

It was a special moment to witness: Not just a franchise’s history and fortune changing before your eyes, but a city’s.

“The true fans who are standing out there in Jurassic Park in the rain, filling the arena early, chanting, cheering, never giving up,” Norman Powell said. “Since day one, this building, this whole organization with all the great players who have played here and came to Toronto, they’ve been great. And you can see it. You feel the vibes around the city. You feel the wave around the city. It’s special what we’re able to do, to create history. And I think since day one the fans really believed this season that we could achieve and get over the jump finally and make it to the Finals.”

They did it, finally. And it was only because Ujiri had the guts to risk so much on this one season.

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